Green groups on Tuesday launched a legal challenge against the Canadian government's approval of genetically modified (GM or GMO) salmon egg manufacturing, which they say was done in secret, violated environmental protection laws, and risks widespread, long-term damage.
"Canadians expect government decision-making to be open and transparent, especially when it comes to something as significant as manufacturing genetically-modified salmon that may pose serious risks to wild Atlantic salmon stocks," said Kaitlyn Mitchell, an attorney with the environmental law firm Ecojustice. "This decision should have never been shielded from public view."
With salmon at historically low numbers in parts of the Atlantic, the plaintiffs argued (pdf) that approving GMO salmon manufacturing violated the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, which requires new substances to be tested for toxicity to the surrounding ecosystems.
If they are slated for human consumption, GMO salmon would become the first genetically modified food animal in the world—and about five percent of them would be able to breed in the wild, Ecojustice said Tuesday.
"Approval of the world's first genetically-modified food animal essentially happened behind closed doors, with zero public input," said Mark Butler, policy director at Ecology Action Centre, a Nova Scotia-based conservation group. "Not only was the public left out of the loop, there has been no consideration of whether these genetically-modified salmon could become invasive in the event of an escape."
Under then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the Canadian government in 2013 approved a bid by American biotechnology firm AquaBounty to manufacture GMO salmon eggs on Prince Edward Island (PEI). From there, the eggs will be shipped to facilities in Panama and grown to adult size.
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Getting the go-ahead on egg manufacturing is seen as a major step toward approval for human consumption. The company has been pursuing similar authorization in the U.S. since 1995 and its bid is currently being considered by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
A spokesperson for Canada's environmental agency said the "risk assessment concluded that there were no concerns identified to the environment or to the indirect health of Canadians due to the contained production of these GM fish eggs."
However, earlier this year, the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans released a partially-redacted draft risk assessment (pdf) which found that AquaBounty's GMO salmon are more susceptible to certain disease-causing bacteria and are displaying inconsistent growth rates and other performance parameters.
That suggests "that the growth-hormone gene construct inserted in the fish is not operating in a predictable manner, raising questions about the durability, safety and commercial viability of [GMO] salmon," the Center for Food Safety said in May.
In fact, said Friends of the Earth food and technology campaigner Dana Pearls, the assessment "adds to the body of science showing that this genetically engineered fish doesn’t offer any benefit to aquaculture, has unique health problems and presents environmental risks."
As Karen Wristen, executive director of the Living Oceans Society, said Tuesday, "By the government's own admission, the environmental risks posed by this organism are high. Wild salmon stocks are of vital importance to our country and our economy, and risks to wild Atlantic salmon should only be taken in a precautionary and fully informed manner."